I am not an actor so while I felt uncomfortable with this news, I spoke to my friend and actor, Jeff Yung, to talk more about whitewashing and the issue of Asian stereotypes in Hollywood. Jeff has been acting professionally for almost ten years. While he works primarily in theatre and independent work, he has a lot of experience working on film sets as well.
A.T: What is White Washing?
J.Y: To me, whitewashing is taking roles that were specifically written or historically meant to be played by actors of colour and casting them with actors who are white.
A.T: Can you talk about some experiences of stereotyping you've had in an audition room or any part of casting.
J.Y: Nearly all the characters I've ever auditioned for in television and film, have some degree of stereotype. I can't count the times I've gone in to audition for an Asian gangster. In acting we have a term called “hit” it's sort of a way to categorize what type of roles might be suited for the way you appear to those making the decisions. One of my hit's is for sure “gangster”, which in itself isn't necessarily bad. But when pretty much every role that I audition for with “gangster” in the breakdown, is a two dimensional, stereotypical, side character who is usually an antagonist for white leads, it can get pretty frustrating.
The “Asian accent” is also a common stereotype. Being asked to use one, or having it written in the breakdown, or being asked to put on some “flavour” of accent, so it can sound more “foreign.” I understand that in very specific roles, where it is required to do proper justice to the character being portrayed, it may be necessary. But I also feel like it's something that Hollywood still finds novel, and often isn't necessary. I personally have been fortunate enough to have the privilege and I guess, courage, to say no to using one in everything I've filmed but I definitely feel it is something that Asian actors are still battling against.
A.T: Why do you think this is a big problem in Hollywood?
J.Y: I don't think that Hollywood thinks that it's a big problem. The whitewashed casting choices that have occurred in the past year tell me that Hollywood is perfectly fine with whitewashing characters because they don't feel like actors of color can take on specific roles. My reasons for thinking this is a problem don't differ from the countless of people who've spoken out about it before me. It's about representation in the mainstream. It's about being barred from the very few opportunities that were crafted specifically for the people being barred from them. As to why the issue seems to be happening so frequently in Hollywood, well, you'd have to ask the people making the decisions. I'm sure they think money has something to do with it. Though from where I sit in the hierarchy, it just seems to be a lack of faith. And yes, I find it disturbing.
A.T: Do you think the situation is better than a decade ago?
J.Y: To say the industry is “better than a decade ago” would maybe be correct, but that would also be like saying, (and I understand that this is a completely different issue, and my comparison isn't a fair one) equality for women is “better than a decade ago”. Is it better? Sure, the types of roles offered to actors of colour (and all marginalized groups) aren't blatantly racist (sexist, stereotypical), like they may have been a decade ago. Congratulations. Pat yourself on the back. “A decade ago” shouldn't be the standard in which we are comparing our current state. To me, and I don't speak for all marginalized groups, I can't, but from where I specifically view the state of our industry. Small improvement isn't enough. Little victories aren't enough. They are great when they happen, and they are amazing to watch, but they aren't enough. The industry needs to take a good, hard, honest look at it's state of affairs, and put in the work to make bigger and bolder strides. It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be comfortable. It's going to take a lot of empathy and a lot of likely uncomfortable compromise from the higher ups. But without big moves, we'll be living in a “better than a decade ago” state forever. And I just don't think that's fair or good for this industry's survival and growth.
A.T: What advice would you give young Asian Americans who are thinking about becoming professional actors?
J.Y: If you are in a position to, refuse work that you don't feel helps accurately reflect the Asian North American experience. Besides that, create work. Do it by whatever means you can and by whatever measure that means to you. Find like minded artists and producers, and make the things you want to see happen on the screen happen. Expand your artistic group and work with as diverse a group of people as you can from all walks of life, in every role of creation. Really LISTEN to this diverse group, try to understand their struggles, their reality, their stories. Really empathize, check your privilege, and try to set aside your ego when you are creating, and demand this of the writers, producers, and everyone who you are working with who is part of the creation process. It will not be comfortable, but hopefully it will be rewarding. When not creating, support work that supports what you want to see reflected in the mainstream. Don't get discouraged, or disheartened too easily. And don't give up. This industry will chew you up and spit you out over and over and over again. But if we don't keep trying to make the change we want to see, no change is going to happen.
This interview was conducted by Annie Tran.